Led to reflect on what had made the Diocesan Gathering so generative of rich kingdom-flavoured outcomes I realised how significant the underlying structures had been. The whole gathering was shaped by a large team drawn from different parts of the Diocese in terms of theology, geography, and position in the hierarchy. There were equal numbers of men and women, and throughout the conference they shared out the upfront as well as the servant roles. The Bishop gave only a short opening welcome and preached and presided at the final Eucharist, modelling a permission-giving and enabling leadership.
No one apart from the Bishop and one female member of the planning team wore anything (yes, this sentence does continue) that signified their status or churchpersonship. We were all in mufti all the time, and I can’t describe how liberating that was. We met each other as human persons, rather than meeting each other as signposts of particular theological positions. It struck me how much our ceremonial clothes in the Church of England act like placards proclaiming our educational background, our interpretation of the ecclesiastical past, our current ranking in the Anglican Premier League, and the church tribe we align ourselves with. Our vestments act as barriers to true encounter – they are all statement and defence and proclamation of power.
I can’t see how a congregation, church or Diocese constructed from such exquisitely shaded gradations of status and role, belief and belonging, will ever connect with a society discipled on the open-source, democratic, egalitarian principles of our time. It is impossible to explain to those outside the Anglican Communion why it’s a social solecism for a clergywoman to wear cerise. Or why pastors parade around in an academic hood. Or why obligatory stoles can be replaced by a preaching scarf.
Could we simply go without the sophisticated, somewhat barbed language of vestments, and just talk to one another?!
I met a number of new colleagues at the Gathering and got to know them as people. I don’t know what kind of churches they come from or how important they are or how much studying they’ve done. I got to know them as fellow travellers, as colleagues, as brothers and sisters in Christ. I enjoyed the freedom of ‘seeing’ them without having to put on institutional spectacles.
So here’s my attempt at a riff on Galatians 3:28 as it applied to the Bath and Wells Diocesan Gathering:
‘For here there is neither ordained nor lay, curate or archdeacon, conservative or liberal, graduate or non-graduate, charismatic or contemplative, low church or high church. Instead, Christ is all, and is in all.’
In this regard the Gathering modelled a way of being together than offers hope for the future. I’m grateful to all who made it possible and showed us ‘a more excellent way’.